Friday 19 January 2018

Oh my Pod!

On the 10th anniversary of its release, John Meagher charts the rise and rise of Apple's portable music device

In April 2001 Apple released the iPod with mechanical scroll wheel for navigation. Photo: Bloomberg News
In April 2001 Apple released the iPod with mechanical scroll wheel for navigation. Photo: Bloomberg News
John Meagher

John Meagher

It was -- by the standards Apple would set later in the decade -- a decidedly low-key launch. When Steve Jobs produced a white silver-backed music player -- "the size of a pack of cards" -- and suggested it would change the way we listen to music forever, few were convinced. Yet, 10 years after the Apple CEO first introduced the iPod, everything truly has changed, not least the music industry.

That first-generation MP3 player with its "revolutionary" click-wheel helped pave the way for Apple to go from ailing computer firm, adored by a minority, into one of the world's most powerful companies.

Even though several other digital music players were already on the market, the iPod -- and its online store, iTunes, also introduced in 2001 -- had a user-friendly approach its rivals had lacked.

Yet, progress was slow initially. The very first iPod was only compatible with Apple Macs, something that ruled out the much more populous, mainstream PC community, but the next generation had wide compatibility.

By 2004, total sales had exceeded one million and its tipping point would come later that year thanks to increased storage space, improved battery life, more competitive price and a high-profile U2 endorsement. No longer was the iPod solely the preserve of the clued-in hipster -- just about everyone could see its appeal.

"It was the first cultural icon of the 21st century," says Michael Bull, media studies lecturer at the University Of Sussex. "And it became symbolic of the way people like to move around in cities. It fitted the desire for a technological freedom, whereby you moved to your own soundscape."

For Phantom DJ Michelle Doherty the iPod is the first thing that goes into her handbag each morning. "I can't imagine the walk to work without it," she says. "I take it for granted that I can bring my entire record collection with me every day, but when you think about it, it's an astonishing leap forward from the days of the Walkman. And I think the 'Shuffle' option is particularly great because it re-introduces you to music you'd forgotten you had."

According to Apple lore, the iPod was devised through the spring of 2001 in California with the firm's UK-born designer, Jonathan Ive, credited with dreaming up its distinct look as well as all future Apple products, from the iPhone to the iPad.

Ive, incidentally, has acknowledged the influence of the German designer, Dieter Rams, whose work with Braun in the 1960s revolutionised product design.

Paul Hearns, editor of the Irish magazine Computer Scope, believes it is Apple's ability to improve what's already there, rather than re-invent the wheel, that has made the company such a key part of the zeitgeist: "Apple don't innovate, they refine. They take existing technology and wrap it in an attractive package.

"I think Sony's creation of the Walkman in 1979 was a far bigger technological leap for the time than Apple's iPod in 2001. Sony invented the idea of portable music. Apple was, by no means, the first company to offer an MP3 player. There were several available before the iPod came along.

"But what Apple did -- and continue to do -- is to make their products extremely user-friendly. You don't have to be technically-minded to use iPods, iPhones or iPads and it's that quality that has helped leave much of the competition for dead."

The numbers are difficult to comprehend. An estimated 270 million iPods have been sold, and then there's the game-changing power of the iPhone and iPad. Yet, somehow -- despite its ferocious growth -- Apple has managed to stay cool. "It's remarkable that a company that has become so big has retained its hip cachet," says Michael Cullen, editor of Marketing magazine. "To do that is practically unheard of. I think its secret is the way it has constantly reinvented itself, by introducing one very desirable product after the next.

"It's a bit like the days when Madonna was constantly changing her image -- you'd wonder what she'd come up with next. The legions of people who adore Apple products are wondering what comes after iPad 2."

Ian Dodson, MD of the Dublin-based Digital Marketing Institute, believes Apple's "genius" is its willingness to cannibalise its own creations with new products. "The iPod is only 10 years old, but it's fallen down Apple's pecking order. Everyone's talking about the iPad now and it was the iPhone before that. Both these products have the music-playing capability of the iPod, but do so much more and that's appealing for a consumer that has got used to a multi-function device."

Contrary to popular opinion -- most recently expressed by Jon Bon Jovi -- that the iPod helped damage the music industry, Dodson believes it has transformed music for the better.

"Gone are the days where you would have to search record shops for an obscure song. In an instant, you can download that song from iTunes. And those who talk about declining record sales often forget that it forces the acts to tour more."

Apple may have a covetable stranglehold on popular culture but Paul Hearns is unlikely to jump on the bandwagon.

"I've never owned an Apple product, and I have no desire to. I have an engineering background and I like to tinker with products I buy, but Apple makes that very difficult. The technology is hidden away and most don't care about its workings anyway, more what the product can actually do.

"Yet, despite my views on Apple, my wife has an iPhone and loves it."

Irish Independent

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